In Daniel Deronda (1876) George Eliot sardonically observes, “[p]erspective, as its inventor remarked, is a beautiful thing. What horrors of damp huts, where human beings languish, may not become picturesque through aerial distance!” (Deronda, 155). Eliot’s critique of perspective rests on its tendency to make material human suffering “picturesque” and remote, blunting the kind of sympathy we associate with Eliot’s realist project—a project whose touchstone remains the famous digression from chapter 7 of Adam Bede (1859), with its ethical investment in “the faithful representing of commonplace things” (180). Rather than a rejection of perspective itself, however, Eliot endorses a tactile, embedded perspective; unlike the detached observer who eyes unreachable figures in the “aerial distance,” Eliot’s spectator focuses on “the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch” (Adam Bede, 180). Yet, as Linda Shires shows in her masterful and wide-ranging study of perspective in nineteenth-century art and literature, as early as 1859 Eliot was already struggling with the limits of this claim to a more ethical form of perspective. In her insightful reading of Silas Marner (1861) toward the end of the book, Shires conjures a novel that “accepts multiple points of view and differing capacities for taking in and interpreting what one sees, as it both expands and limits the capabilities of point of view” (106). The decentered perspective of Silas Marner has implications both for Eliot’s realism and her investment in sympathy, creating a situation where “limiting sympathy is the only way sympathy can be maintained” (114).
That Shires’s important contribution to how we think about Eliot’s narrative perspective and realism more generally constitutes only a third of her final chapter demonstrates how rich this deceptively short book is. In four chapters flanked by a substantial introduction and short coda, she offers close-readings of writing by Ruskin, William Morris, and paintings by J.M.W. Turner and William Dyce; paintings and poems by D. G. Rossetti; photographs by Clementina Hawarden and Henry Peach Robinson; and poems by Robert Browning, alongside novels by Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. Collectively, these readings help redefine how we think about the history of art, the politics of perspective, and the relationship between Victorian and modern aesthetics. While art historians have often associated modernism with the “end point of classical perspective’s hegemony in the visual and verbal arts” (10), Shires pushes back against this still-prevalent “rupture” approach to cultural history. She convincingly shows that nineteenth-century writers and artists were already interrogating, in highly complex and self-conscious ways, traditional, single-point perspective, along with its claims to a stable, objective point of view. Experimenting with multiple points of view, they worked to interrogate, renegotiate, and critique the gendered, raced, and classed forms of mastery and power critics have associated with this authoritative gaze.
Perhaps one of Shires’s most useful interventions here is to complicate entrenched ideological assumptions about the perspectival gaze, both in terms of its history and politics. Shires argues that it is only retrospectively that traditional perspective was described as a single, dominant technique. Instead, “multiple vanishing points, anamorphosis, and aerial perspective were also employed” (6). She also usefully points to the way in which the phrase “Cartesian perspectivalism” represents a conflation of Descartes’s epistemological theories with the idea of perspective, “so that perspectivalism has come to stand for rationalism” (7). Such a distortion ignored Descartes’s “doubts about the senses” (7-8). Making good on her critique of histories of rupture, she argues that Victorian experimentation represents not a radically new approach to space and vision, but rather a “continuation” of the “perspectival paradigm” she has helped us see anew (11). The Victorians foreground elements of “uncertainty and performativity” that are already present in the discourse and practice of perspective (11). While confined mainly to the introduction and coda, this new frame for how we understand the complex history of perspective constitutes a major contribution to literary and visual studies as well as a critique of Foucauldian and Lacanian models (represented by Jonathan Crary and Laura Mulvey to name just a few) for understanding the history and theory of seeing and representing.
Although Shires explains that she has resisted “weighting down a slim book with theoretical freight” and that a “more historically grounded book has yet to be written” (116), she emphasizes the importance of her multi-media and multi-generic scope, while explicitly distancing her work from new formalist trends in Victorian studies. “[O]nly the flexibility of a cross-generic approach can allow us to appreciate the full importance of the formal innovations…[of] the 1830s to the 1870s” (115), she argues. The result of this approach is an analysis of a large number of individual works from Pre-Raphaelite painting and composition photography to dramatic monologue and sensation fiction. This density is of course the point; it enables Shires to show how pervasive the issue of perspective was. By the end, the reader will agree with her claim that “perspective became a dominant issue in early-nineteenth-century cultural sites, across different genres and media” (115).
Shires stresses that the challenges to monocular perspective performed in these poems, paintings, and novels do not represent a single or simple critique: “The process of questioning and testing, via perspectives and double forms, can register a nineteenth-century discomfort with any exclusive view. Still, this kind of art does not necessarily enact critique in the sense of judgment as much as it may explore points of view and expose the strengths and limits of each. Often it holds two simultaneous and contradictory attitudes in a tension” (15). Her formal close-readings (most visible in the detailed analyses in Chapter 2 of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings and in Chapter 3 of Clementina Hawarden’s photographs of her daughters) bear out this multiplicity. For example, while in Chapter 1 Shires deploys Turner’s increasingly “nonrepresentational” painting to demonstrate a “shift from single, geometric” perspective (22), this change is also, and more surprisingly, central to her reading of William Morris’s prose and poetry. Morris’s description of the Gothic cathedral of Amiens shows how he “accepts the lack of a single centered subject or object …He is not seeking to obtain a totality of perception or unity of object” (31). In the only chapter devoted to a single artist or writer (Chapter 2), she analyzes Rossetti’s paired paintings and poems (his “double work of art”) not in terms of the sister-arts tradition, but in the context of challenges to traditional perspective. Shires argues that the relationship between text and image represents “interactions between kinds of meaning in which one exposes the other in a continual rearranging of materials and a raising of new questions” (52).
Each chapter internalizes this same sense of multiplicity and diversity. As she turns to photography in chapter 3, Shires showcases the different approaches to perspective within the same media and technology. Photography offers a particularly charged site for thinking about critiques of monocular perspective since it seemed to associate traditional ways of seeing with reality itself. Instead, Shires argues that photography “explored borders between realities, created composite realities, and staged partial views” (62). In particular, Robinson’s technique of composition photography represents a “transition of a way of representing reality itself—from a mastered single field of vision to another, more fragmented mode in which parts and perspectives fissure the whole” (73). For Shires, Hawarden captures a different kind of fragmentation; the duality, both formal and technical of Hawarden’s photographs (she used a stereoscopic camera and mirrored reflections) “emphasize[s] that perspective is not only Cartesian, in the sense of interior, introspective, privatized, and monocular, but fluid, simultaneously introspective and other-oriented, public and private, binocular and monocular” (83). Chapter 4 shifts yet again to the form of the “case study”—“a chief mode of literary discourse in the period”—in poems and fiction (90). She reads Browning’s roving (rather than immobile) spectator in Pippa Passes (1841) as a meditation on the construction of space and perception: “Browning subtly reconfigures Alberti’s Renaissance model for the space of vision by using the window motif in several antithetical ways” (94). While Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) might not be the most surprising text to choose when discussing multiple points of view, Shires reads it as an exploration of “the ethics and legitimacy of case study itself” (101). George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) and Silas Marner complete the chapter as part of a set of texts that “undermine the very possibility of a unidirectional gaze…whether by character or narrator or reader” (90).
One result of this book’s success in showing that perspective was a complex and dominant issue in the period is that it produces a study at once densely detailed and sweeping in its wide range of texts and images, leaving a reader a bit dizzy from the shifts of perspective and pace that the book demands. One reason for this effect is that the detailed close-readings of Turner’s and Rossetti’s paintings and Hawarden’s photographs are often performed without any visual reproduction to which the reader can refer—an omission that is understandable given the expense of reproducing images and the availability of images online. At other times, shifts in critical perspective are jarring, as when Shires jumps from a close-reading of a Hawarden photograph of a mirrored subject to the claim that “[t]his stereoscopic image in one frame fully destroys monocularism” (85). Throughout the book, I found myself wanting more elaboration of a number of claims, especially the ones I found intriguing and exciting.
In her Coda, however, Shires explicitly addresses the rationale for her scope and approach, describing her readings as a set of “partial soundings” (115). While much more than this modest assessment suggests, and while offering important interventions in how we define perspective, the modesty and reticence of Perspectives constitute its key critical strength. Shires’s study is an invitation to think more critically about point of view, not the definitive answer on how we should think about it. In doing so, she models her own investment in shifting gazes and points of view, in multiple media and multiple genres. In important ways, she teaches us to attend not to “perspective” but to diverse, complex, and contradictory perspectives.
Daniel A. Novak is associate professor of English at Louisiana State University. He is author of Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and co-editor with James Catano of Masculinity Lessons: Rethinking Men's and Women's Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).